Photo by Mandy Lee

I think the funny thing about growing up sandwiched between two polar-opposite cultures is that often I just couldn’t tell if a particular idea that made total sense to one side would be found by the other to be equally awesome or utterly bizarre.

Take this thing called Shibuya honey toast. It is an ingenious Japanese creation that basically involves cutting a whole loaf of sweet milk bread into humongous cubes, toasting them, removing the interiors, reprocessing them, then stuffing them back into the cubes and adding various toppings. To us Asians who are fanatics about milk toast—you know, those sweet, squishy, goosedown-pillow breads sold at Asian bakeries?—this is seriously genius stuff. But to the other side of me, raised to throw stones at people who eat bread that didn’t bloom from a decade-old levain…a sweet white bread bowl? Bizarre.

So I guess this recipe is my effort to make ultimate sense of it all. It is Shibuya honey toast, sort of. It is crème brûlée French toast, sort of. It even has a little bit of a custard-filled doughnut going on. The whole cube of crustless milk bread is encased in a shiny, shatteringly thin caramel shell, then filled with an enormous dollop of chamomile-infused vanilla bean custard. It’s crispy, soft, pillowy, and creamy all at once, with a few pops of tart fresh berry to give it a little shout.

Yield
Make 2 boxes/2 servings

Ingredients

  1. Custard:
    • 1 vanilla bean
    • 2 cups (480 mL) whole milk
    • 1 tablespoon loose chamomile tea
    • 5 large egg yolks
    • 1/4 cup (60 mL) honey
    • 1/4 cup (50 g) granulated sugar
    • 5 tablespoons (39 g) all-purpose flour
    • 1 tablespoon custard powder (find online, or replace with another 1 tablespoon flour)
    • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick/54 g) unsalted butter
  2. Boxes:
    • 1 approximately 11-inch (28-cm) loaf Hokkaido milk bread or rectangular brioche
    • 3/4 cup (180 mL) whole milk
    • 1 large egg
    • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
    • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 1/8 teaspoon salt
    • Granulated sugar, for coating
    • Unsalted butter, for frying
    • Tart berries—raspberries, strawberries, blueberries—to sprinkle on top

Preparation

  1. Make the custard:
    1. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, then scrape out all the seeds. Combine the pod, seeds, and milk in a medium saucepan and set it over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scalding. When it is almost at a simmer, turn off the heat. Place a sieve over the saucepan so that it dips into the milk but doesn’t sink to the bottom, then add the chamomile tea. Let steep for 5 minutes.
    2. In a medium bowl, using a handheld mixer or whisk, whisk the egg yolks, honey, and sugar until thick and velvety, about 2 minutes (you should see ribbons fall from the whisk). Add the flour and custard powder, then whisk until lump-free. Remove the chamomile and vanilla pods from the milk, then slowly pour 1/2 cup (120 mL) of the hot milk into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly until combined. Add the yolk mixture back to the pan, then set it over medium-low heat. Whisking constantly, let the mixture bubble gently until you have a thick custard (take the pot off the heat and whisk to blend if lumps start forming on the side of the pan). Turn off the heat and whisk in the unsalted butter, one tablespoon at a time, until evenly incorporated. Let cool slightly, then transfer to an airtight container and chill in the fridge for at least 6 hours or up to overnight. The custard can be made a couple of days ahead.
  2. Make the box:
    1. With a serrated knife, remove the crust from the bread on all sides, then cut the loaf into two 5-inch (13-cm) cubes. Try to keep the edges as straight as possible.
    2. In a large bowl, whisk the milk, egg, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt. On a rimmed baking sheet, scatter a thin layer of granulated sugar. Working one at a time, dip the bread cubes in the milk mixture for just a couple of seconds on each side, then place them on a baking sheet. With a spoon, scatter a generous but even layer of granulated sugar over each side (you need a good coating to get that hardened caramel shell).
    3. Set a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat and add enough butter to thinly coat the surface. Use a flat spatula to gently place the coated bread cubes in the skillet, then fry on each side until the sugar is golden brown and caramelized. If you see burned sugar in the skillet as you cook, remove it with a spoon. Keep adding more butter as needed.
    4. Let the cubes cool slightly on a cooling rack (the caramel needs a couple of minutes to harden). They can be made 15 minutes before serving but no longer. Right before serving, cut out a 2-inch (5-cm) hole on one side of each cube, then remove about half of the bread from the interior (chopsticks are perfect for this job). Using a piping bag or plastic bag with a cutout hole, squeeze the chilled custard inside to fill the cavity up to the top. Sprinkle with tart berries (I used blueberries because that was what I had, but more sour berries like raspberries or strawberries would work better) and a bit of powdered sugar. Dig in.
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